EU states wary of losing fishing rights in Brexit deal

British fishermen stage a "Fishing for Leave" protest in Hastings, England, in April 2018. PHOTO: REUTERS

BRUSSELS (AFP) - Some EU member states have concerns about the draft Brexit deal, particularly about access to fishing in British waters, but there is little appetite in Brussels to reopen negotiations.

British Prime Minister Theresa May may be struggling to sell the accord in London, but in Brussels a European official said Thursday both sides had "exhausted their margin to manoeuvre."

Senior officials and EU lawmakers largely welcomed the draft, which Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, said should lead to a summit on Nov 25 to seal an orderly Brexit.

Many emphasised that the only alternative to the deal is not a better one, but a "disorderly Brexit", which could be seen as a devastating self-inflicted economic wound for both sides.

"We have a document on the table that has been adopted by the EU and the UK, and so for me the question of further negotiations does not arise," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said.

In Brussels, European officials stressed that both sides had made compromises in order to reach the draft and to head off a hard Brexit, but some member states have grumbles nevertheless.

In particular, France, the Netherlands, Spain and some others are said to be concerned that the withdrawal agreement governing the terms of the divorce does not cover fishing.

May says the deal would restore Britain's status as a coastal power and that London will withdraw from the EU common fisheries policy.

National waters are an emotive issue in British ports, but EU officials want to agree rules for European boats in a later deal on the future relationship rather than in the tricky divorce.

Maritime members fear their boats will be excluded from British waters after Brexit and have raised the issue in Brussels - and may argue that since the deal keeps Britain in the EU customs union, it should share its fish.

"You could argue that because of the customs union, British fish has access tariff free to the single market," a European diplomat told AFP.

"Fish is a real issue. You know fishing communities, you know how vocal they are. Same thing on the UK side."

Another European diplomat source said that EU negotiator Michel Barnier had "failed to deliver on his mandate" by not securing fishing rights in the withdrawal deal.

The issue will be brought up at a meeting of EU ambassadors on Friday and at meetings of ministers and diplomatic sherpas next week in the run up to the Nov 25 deal signing summit.

These meetings will also agree the language of a political declaration that will be released alongside the legal withdrawal treaty and will underpin talks on future ties between London and Brussels.

Diplomats said only then would the concerned countries know whether the agreement is good enough, but others played down fears that the issue could torpedo the entire deal.

"The deal will not collapse because of the fish. In the end, reason will prevail," one insisted.

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